Prog OCTOBER 2009 - by Sid Wilson


Part Stalin, part Gandhi, part Marquis de Sade, Crimson King Robert Fripp has led himself and his league of crafty artists down a regimented route to groundbreaking musical excellence since the age of eleven.

I'm heading north up Manhattan's Eighth Avenue in August's broiling heat just as a fast as my legs will carry me. It's 2008 and I've an appointment with Robert Fripp who, aside from being the forty-second best guitarist in the world according to Rolling Stone's 2003 poll, or the forty-seventh best on the planet if you prefer guitar maker Gibson's more recent hit parade, is also a stickler for punctuality.

Although I've been to the USA a couple of times in the past, this is my first time in the Big Apple and it's hard to resist the temptation to loiter and gawp awhile amidst the iconic buildings and strangely familiar streets. Having seen NYC on so many movies and TV shows gives one an odd sense of déjà vu.

One person who's definitely been here before is Fripp, smiling broadly as he steps out of the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn just as I arrive. "This hotel," he tells me as we start walking in the dazzling sunshine, "is the very first one that King Crimson stayed in when we first arrived in November 1969. Only back then it was called Loew's Midtown Motor Inn and it was then home to most visiting rock bands of the day."

Amid the blaring bustle of what seems to be fastest-moving city on the planet, Fripp's gentle Dorset burr is incongruously infused with graphic tales of just how luridly exotic the street life was to a wide-eyed twenty-three-year-old red-blooded male back in 1969.

Walking the six blocks towards the Nokia Theater, Fripp is in full tour-guide mode; that's the hotel where Adrian Belew wrote the words to Neurotica (from KC's impressionistic tribute to Jack Kerouac's On The Road, Beat); there's the hotel where Bill Bruford once found a dead rat in his room; here's the Longacre Theater where the Double Trio incarnation of the band played a series of sell-out gigs in 1995; then back to the late '70s recounting his days living in the Bowery and riding the new wave, gigging with Walter Stedding, doing benefit gigs for Johnny Blitz, hanging out with Debbie Harry.

Fripp's garrulous commentary is momentarily interrupted when a well-dressed, middle-aged man steps into our path, extending his hand and declaring loudly, "I just wanted to say how much I love your work." The venerable guitarist doesn't make eye contact but neatly sidesteps the man, and without missing a beat, keeps striding purposefully in the direction of the Nokia on Times Square. Glancing over my shoulder I see the guy has been left standing, hand outstretched, with a perplexed 'What the fuck?' look on his face.

In his desire to get to where he needs to be, Robert Fripp has always been nothing if not single-minded.

Since picking up his first guitar in 1957 he's been possessed of an intense sense of focus that has won him both admirers and enemies. Anyone who's been through Crimson or has had him guest on an album will tell you that the question "What's it like working with Robert Fripp?" crops up with alarming frequency, as though they're enquiring about a vaguely worrying life-changing event.

In his autobiography, Bill Bruford devoted an entire chapter dedicated to that very query. Ever-ready with a quotable quip, Bruford, tongue only partly in cheek one suspects, responds that working with Fripp was like "working with a man who is one part Joseph Stalin, one part Mahatma Gandhi, and one part the Marquis de Sade... on a good night the seated man appeared unhappy about something, and on a bad night unhappy about everything."

Nothing could be further from the truth as far as saxophonist Theo Travis is concerned. Having recently toured Spain and several UK venues (including a well-received set and subsequent live album at Coventry Cathedral), Travis has had an opportunity to see the guitarist at close quarters. "Before I worked with him I'd heard from people like David Sylvian and Steven Wilson, who'd both described him as being friendly and generous as a person, so I wasn't expecting the scary, foreboding figure that is sometimes portrayed."

Trawl through press clippings about Fripp and you're likely to turn up many descriptions that portray him as cold, professorial, not to mention, well, a bit strange. "That's because Robert doesn't fulfil the media expectations of what the iconic rock guitarist is meant to be like," says Travis. "He's a quiet person, a private person; a thoughtful, intelligent musician following a very personal path in music. He has no interest in the whole rock circus at all."

In '74, when King Crimson were very much a part of that circus, Fripp looked decidedly eccentric when he killed the band just ahead of the release of the proto prog metal masterpiece, Red.

At the time Crimson seemed poised to break the USA, as well as consolidate their first division status across mainland Europe. To many incredulous observers (including his just-sacked bandmates) it seemed an act of madness, a suspicion seemingly confirmed when he started talking about the bands of the day being akin to lumbering dinosaurs (a full two years before punk, mark you). Worse still, he reckoned the record industry itself would eventually collapse under the unsustainable weight of its own greed and stupidity. His own future was as a small, mobile independent unit, travelling light without all the baggage and brouhaha that accompanied some of his illustrious contemporaries in the biz.

His interviews at the time were also tinged with apocalyptic prophesy; the financial collapse of 1929 would, he patiently explained, look like a walk in the park compared to the turmoil that lay ahead. Exposure, his 1979 solo album, is peppered with the crisp, upper-class diction of Fripp's spiritual teacher, JG Bennett, informing us that the seas were going to rise and that entire cities would be lost under the deluge.

Though folks laughed at him back then, looking at the drift into global warming, and the catastrophic repercussions of the credit crunch, Fripp could well be forgiven for saying "I told you so."

In 1965 Robert was involved in a brawl at a dance in downtown Poole. He tried to break up the rumble between a mate and a local hard-nut looking for trouble. That the tough guy was twice his size didn't stop the young Fripp from wading in. For his trouble, he was hospitalised with teeth missing, and a mauled mouth that required stitches to put it back in place.

Interestingly, the event says something about Fripp's character today: he saw something going on that was wrong and regardless of the consequences was prepared to challenge it.

That David and Goliath scenario was played out once again in the '90s as he fought a lengthy legal dispute with Virgin Records for the ownership of Crimson's material following the collapse of EG Management and their subsequent sale of the KC back catalogue. "Robert's very tenacious. He's a bit like a dog with a bone," offers Travis. "Whereas other people would've given up in the face of the huge mire of the music business and the corporate giants who own it, Robert sticks with it and goes after them. A single musician winning against these huge vested interests is fairly rare in the music industry."

Though the fight in the courts may not have been as bloody as the punchup in Poole, in its own way it was just as vicious, and potentially debilitating. Spending time on legal briefs necessarily takes you away from being a creative artist. "He's a stubborn individual and I think there's an aspect of that in his music as well," says guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk.

Having been a fan at the time of In The Wake Of Poseidon in 1970, and seeing the Islands-era band play Watford Town Hall in 1971, Jakszyk was directly inspired to pick up the guitar following his exposure to the extraordinary mélange of sounds on those records. He's since worked with Crimson alumni Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, Mel Collins and Ian Wallace in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, and is part of the current King Crimson line-up. He probably knows their music from the inside out better than anyone other than the man himself. "Sometimes Crimson albums are so diverse and far apart they don't even sound like the same group," he explains. "Yet there's something about what's going on harmonically, and there's lines which have the same essence or colour, that instantly singles his presence out. Other members of the band have gone on to do other things and you're hard pushed to find anything that sounds remotely Crimson on them. What does that say about Robert? There's a discipline, a sense of purpose, a sense of commitment and detail that is a reflection of his personality, of who he is."

Fripp will tell you that some of his best work has been done outside the confines of Crimson, and it's Fripp as a wild card that has appealed to a truly eclectic cast of characters that include Blondie, Brian Eno, David Bowie, The Orb, Peter Gabriel, Midge Ure, Daryl Hall, Porcupine Tree, Talking Heads, No-Man, Steve Vai, and David Sylvian. Further proof of the extent and range of Fripp's lure came in June 2010, when Nick Cave had Fripp spray some guitar over a track by Grinderman - Cave's alt-rock project. "I wanted to work with Robert Fripp because he has done some of the most uniquely unsettling guitar work I have ever heard along with some of the most delicate and finessed. I grew up listening to a lot of the King Crimson stuff, the vinyl copy of the phenomenal live album Earthbound is one of my most treasured possessions. His work with Eno, was of course, extraordinary. Grinderman wanted a long dark, evil guitar solo at the end of a track we were recording called Heathen Child. His approach in the studio was nothing short of amazing - his mantra seeming to be that he was there to serve the project - an extraordinary position for a guitarist of such overwhelming talent and what he did was exactly what the track called for - a classic, darkly subversive guitar solo that blew us all away".

Even rapper Kanye West wanted a little Crimson kudos, using a sample from 21st Century Schizoid Man on his single, Power. "It's interesting," says Theo Travis "with the reissues of In The Court Of The Crimson King, Lizard and Red, so many musicians and journalists have come out of the woodwork saying how much of an influence those albums have been."

Fripp's astonishing technique, his angular soloing style, or the mutant chordal fury he's deployed to devastating effect from 1969's In The Court Of The Crimson King through to The Power To Believe in 2003, comprises a unique voice that owes nothing to the blues or the traditional roots of rock guitar. As Jakszyk points out, Crimson albums have consistently changed tack or broken new ground when the need has arisen. As important as the physicality and emotional depth of Fripp's playing has been his ability to conceptualise and implement new ways of approaching the instrument via his Guitar Craft program, New Standard Tuning (CGDAEG) the tape-looped based Frippertronics and their digital extension, Soundscapes.

"There's lots of people doing that kind of ambient thing now but nobody was doing it when No Pussyfooting was released in '73," argues Jakszyk. "Whether they know it or not, lots of guitarists owe a debt to Robert, his approach and his single-mindedness not to fall back on cliché."

And what of Fripp's place on those lists of the world's greatest guitarists? "You can argue about who might have the most technical ability 'til you're blue in the face, but the single most important thing is that you hear a couple of notes and you instantly know who it is. And that is really true of Robert."